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'Absurd Caricature of Blatant Lies'

White House Withdraws Sohn FCC Nomination After Fractious Process

The White House withdrew Gigi Sohn’s FCC nomination from Senate consideration Tuesday at her request, ending what had become an often fractious year-plus confirmation process that involved President Joe Biden naming her three times (see 2301030026). Sohn’s announcement followed shortly after Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced he'd be the first Senate Democrat to formally oppose her confirmation, but the former nominee and her supporters confirmed she reached her decision Monday. Sohn’s supporters grieved her withdrawal and strongly criticized her opponents inside and outside the communications sector for engaging in an unprecedented campaign of character assassination.

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"When I accepted his nomination over sixteen months ago, I could not have imagined that legions of cable and media industry lobbyists, their bought-and-paid-for surrogates, and dark money political groups with bottomless pockets would distort my over 30-year history as a consumer advocate into an absurd caricature of blatant lies,” Sohn said. “The unrelenting, dishonest and cruel attacks on my character and my career as an advocate for the public interest have taken an enormous toll on me and my family."

It's "a sad day for our country and our democracy when dominant industries, with assistance from unlimited dark money, get to choose their regulators," Sohn said. "And with the help of their friends in the Senate, the powerful cable and media companies have done just that." She said she hopes Biden "swiftly nominates an individual who puts the American people first over all other interests. The country deserves nothing less."

The 2-2 “FCC deadlock, now over two years long, will remain so for a long time," Sohn said. "As someone who has advocated for my entire career for affordable, accessible broadband for every American, it is ironic that the 2-2 FCC will remain sidelined at the most consequential opportunity for broadband in our lifetimes. This means that your broadband will be more expensive for lack of competition, minority and underrepresented voices will be marginalized, and your private information will continue to be used and sold at the whim of your broadband provider."

We appreciate” Sohn’s “candidacy for this important role,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a Tuesday press briefing. “She would have brought tremendous intellect and experience, which is why the president nominated her in the first place.”

Manchin’s office said before Sohn’s withdrawal announcement he would oppose her confirmation “as a result of her years of partisan activism, inflammatory statements online, and partisan alliances with far-left groups.” Manchin had been publicly undecided on the nominee for more than a year. His announcement didn’t mean Sohn couldn’t have won approval in the 51-49 Democratic-majority Senate, but it made her already-narrow road to confirmation even more difficult, communications sector observers said. Sohn would at best have gotten a 50-50 tie in the full chamber if all 49 Republicans join Manchin in opposing her confirmation, as was widely expected, lobbyists said.

The FCC “has become increasingly politicized” during “the last several years,” Manchin said in a statement. “Especially now, the FCC must remain above the toxic partisanship that Americans are sick and tired of” and Sohn “has clearly shown she is not the person to do that.” The FCC “must focus on issues of critical importance” to all Americans, including “updating broadband coverage maps, addressing compromised Chinese equipment and products that threaten the security of our communications infrastructure, and ensuring every American has access to affordable” broadband, Manchin said: Biden should “put forth a nominee who can bring us together not drive us apart.”

Senate Commerce member Jacky Rosen of Nevada, one of two panel Democrats who recently publicly shifted to being publicly undecided on backing Sohn in a committee vote, told us she wasn’t immediately aware of the nominee’s withdrawal because she had been in a Democratic caucus lunch when the news broke. The presence of two undecided Democrats on the Commerce roster was complicating efforts to schedule a panel vote to advance Sohn to the full Senate (see 2303030074). Two non-Commerce Democrats -- Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Mark Kelly of Arizona -- were also undecided on Sohn.

It seemed like” Sohn “wanted to push” forward on a Senate Commerce vote to advance her nomination, “but I’m sure the administration’s been putting pressure on her because they knew they were going to lose,” said Senate Communications Subcommittee ranking member John Thune, R-S.D.

'Really a Tragedy'

Sohn’s Senate Democratic supporters voiced disappointment but not surprise Tuesday that she had decided to withdraw. “I’m not surprised” because Sohn “didn’t have the votes” to make it through Senate Commerce, let alone the full chamber, said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii. “She would have been an incredibly qualified commissioner. Now we need a new nominee as soon as possible.”

Sohn “would have been an historically great FCC commissioner and it’s really a tragedy that we’re going to lose her enormous expertise because it’s much needed,” said Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who strongly defended Sohn during her Feb. 14 confirmation hearing (see 2302140077). “I really regret the Republican opposition, which has blocked her ability to be confirmed” by the Senate. “My hope is that we can move on and have a new nominee” very soon, he told us: “It’s absolutely absurd that it’s March of 2023 and we still don’t have a full” five-member FCC.

While I am disappointed, I respect” Sohn’s “decision to withdraw,” said Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a statement. “Throughout the past 16 months,” Sohn “demonstrated her expertise in telecommunications law, deep experience and commitment to ensuring that every American has access to affordable broadband regardless of where they live. More importantly, I commend her for the integrity and fortitude she displayed in the face of a coordinated, hate-fueled campaign to malign and distort her character and record.”

Sohn’s withdrawal “is a major victory and represents a strong bipartisan agreement that we need a fair and impartial candidate who can receive the support needed for confirmation,” said Senate Commerce ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in a statement. “The FCC is not a place for partisan activists; free speech is too important. Now, it’s time for the Biden administration to put forth a nominee who can be confirmed by the full Senate and is committed to serving as an even-handed and truly independent regulator.”

It is tragic for all that believe in competition and consumer rights,” said former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in an interview. Sohn was a top Wheeler aide during his chairmanship. “When the regulated get to pick their regulators, the system is out of kilter,” he said. Sohn’s career was misrepresented by "scurrilous" attacks in conservative media, he said. “When I represented industry,” including NCTA before becoming FCC chairman, “she was someone you could talk to,” said Wheeler, now a visiting fellow at Brookings Institution: “She searched for solutions rather than sensationalism.”


Many pro-Sohn groups echoed Wheeler, albeit to varying degrees. “Throughout this entire process, Gigi has acted with the utmost integrity and honesty,” said Incompas CEO Chip Pickering in a statement. “Despite the relentless attacks on her character, she stood strong and never wavered in her commitment to fight for competition based policies.”

Democrats promised to restore net neutrality and FCC oversight of telecom monopolies, and instead they caved to corporate interests and homophobic smears,” said Fight for the Future Director Evan Greer. “Democrats’ failure to stand up to the telecom industry and condemn the homophobic smears targeting Sohn will have devastating effects for human rights, free expression, and public safety. Even if the White House names a new nominee, there may not be enough time for the FCC to move forward with key priorities like restoring net neutrality and broadband privacy rules.”

They’re probably celebrating at Comcast and Fox today, and their lobbyists deserve most of the credit for concocting lies to derail her nomination,” said Free Press co-CEO Craig Aaron. “Republicans who willfully spread those lies must be thrilled, too. But they’re not the only ones to blame: The failure of Democratic leaders to stand up to industry-orchestrated smears cost the agency -- and the nation -- a true public servant.” Sohn’s “nomination process was bungled almost from the start, with a long wait in initially selecting the nominee, three confirmation hearings, and endless excuses for why various senators weren’t ready to vote,” Aaron said. “All this dithering and delay allowed the industry to refuel their attack machine, bankroll front groups and deploy legions of lobbyists against Sohn.”

Sohn’s opponents celebrated. “What happened today should not come as a surprise,” said Fraternal Order of Police National President Patrick Yoes. Sohn “didn’t have enough support last Congress and she didn’t this time either. Her nomination was completely unacceptable. She should never have been renominated.” The group opposed Sohn because of her past interactions with anti-police social media posts and her role as an Electronic Frontier Foundation member (see 2201040071) due to that group’s backing of end-to-end encryption and “user-only-access” to mobile devices.